Corporate Censorship

I read a couple of interesting articles in the last 24 hours that highlight something I have personally observed: self-censorship by companies. Yesterday I read about a Sun employee, Tim Bray, who posted on his personal blog that Sun’s Blackbox datacentre-in-a-shipping-container project was “just totally drop-dead fucking cool”. Tim works at Sun, but he expressed this personal, and passionate, opinion on his own time. This comment sparked a flurry of criticism and discussion about his use of the expletive ‘fucking’ and how that reflects on him as a person, his ‘professionalism’, etc. As Hugh Macleod says over at gapingvoid, it’s great when someone is so passionate about something you made that they would express their joy in such expansive terms. I would love to have someone say this about something I had a hand in creating.

Then I read this morning about a draft report on the numbers used by the BSAA when they talk about how much copyright infringement, or ‘piracy’ costs them. Aside from the obviously inflated figures they use, there is an interesting undercurrent in the story about how the report’s language will be changed because “We wouldn’t use language like that because it’s not accurate, it’s hyperbolic and overblown”. Ha. The report’s language will be changed to tone down the message so that people the ‘senior staff’ are afraid of won’t be offended. The report will then be easier to ignore, and its findings explained away. Then the BSAA can continue to claim that “Worldwide business software piracy losses are estimated at A$17 billion”

I’ve been in this position myself. I’ve written reports that used strong, but polite, language to highlight what I felt were the most important areas that needed urgent attention. I was asked to tone down the language, and did so, and the reports were cheerfully ignored. If you cover your text with ‘might be’s and ‘possibly’s you dilute your message. If something only ‘might’ be true, it can be easily ignored. It sounds like you lack conviction, that you don’t really believe in your own work. Why bother?

What’s wrong with being passionate about your work? What is so scary about people who love what they do and express that glee? What is unprofessional about thinking something is ‘fucking cool’? In my experience, people who criticise someone for being ‘unprofessional’ have no idea what being professional is. Professional isn’t watering down your message for fear of criticism. Professional isn’t keeping your passion hidden lest it offend the dispassionate cube-slaves who surround you. Being a professional is a far more complex and nuanced task than that.

I would much rather buy products from a company with passionate people working there. I prefer to work with people who also enjoy what they do for 40 hours of the week. People who don’t care about their work don’t do very good work. If they’re not passionate, why would they bother keeping standards high? Professionalism? Please. People are not robots; you can’t simply flick the Professionalism Switch to On. I’ve worked with my share of clock-watchers; people who turn up, do a vague approximation of something worklike for 7.35 hours and then go home. Every day. For years. Someone else generally picks up the slack and does some (or all) of their work for them. Or has to redo it. Someone who actually cares about what they do and wants it to be good. Someone who gets a kick out of doing great work. Someone professional.

This kind of thing angers and frustrates, and I’ve had a hard time dealing with it at times. Moaning about it on your blog doesn’t help matters, though, so I’ve been trying to find ways to improve things, in part by working for myself on seafelt, something that I hope will allow me to employ other passionate people to work with me. There are a lot of really smart folks out there who have good things to say about this, too. I’ve mentioned Peopleware before, but there’s also Joel On Software, and the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. There is plenty of evidence that the best people like to work with the best people, and hate working with duds. If you’re in a position to influence hiring and firing, I urge you to try hard to get rid of the duds and replace them with great people.

And try not to get offended if one of them says you’re ‘fucking cool’.

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